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Friday, December 5, 1997 Published at 17:43 GMT

image: [ BBC Despatches ]Jan Repa

The European Union health ministers' decision to ban sport sponsorship and most forms of advertising by tobacco companies by 2006 could pose problems for Central and East European countries hoping to join the EU. As Jan Repa reports, the region has one of the highest levels of tobacco consumption in the world - and one of the highest incidences of lung cancer:

A year ago, Czech television viewers were presented with a bed-side scene of their president, Vaclav Havel, smoking with the country's health minister just before undergoing an operation to remove a cancerous tumour along with half a lung. Since then, President Havel, who once vetoed legislation banning tobacco advertising, is said to have given up his cigarettes.

According to the World Health Organisation, Russians lead the world in the proportion of the population that smokes - but Poland has the highest per-capita consumption. Hungarian researchers claim that smoking accounts for half the difference in life expectancy between Hungary and Western Europe.

Several Central and East European countries have introduced legislation restricting tobacco advertising - but much of this remains a dead letter. So far only Poland has followed the lead set by many Western countries in restricting smoking in offices, businesses, schools and hospitals to certain designated areas.

The Western tobacco giants have invested more than three billion dollars in Eastern Europe over the past six years. Advertisers have had to use their imagination.

But how about the Western tobacco company which donated a year's supply of traffic light bulbs to the Romanian capital Bucharest? Every time the lights changed, the company logo flashed on and off.

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